US researchers looking to develop revolutionary superconducting supercomputer

4 Dec 2014

Computer chips with elusive superconducting circuits would be 50 to 100 times as energy efficient as today’s products, and researchers are on the hunt.

The US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) has announced a multi-year research effort to develop a superconducting computer.

If successful, technology developed under the cryogenic computer complexity (C3) programme will pave the way for a new generation of superconducting supercomputers that are far more energy efficient.

This would revolutionise the entire sphere of engineering behind computers and computer-based devices.

With no electrical resistance, electrons can travel through superconductors completely unimpeded. This is a marked difference from standard conductors, such as copper wires and the like, meaning a much lower voltage is required.

Today’s tech is unmanageable

“The power, space, and cooling requirements for current supercomputers based on complementary metal oxide semiconductor technology are becoming unmanageable,” said Marc Manheimer, C3 programme manager at IARPA.

While in the past significant technical obstacles prevented serious exploration of superconducting computing, recent innovations have created foundations for a major breakthrough.

These include new families of superconducting logic without static power dissipation and new ideas for energy-efficient cryogenic memory. 

Superconducting chips also promise greater processing power. According to research by MIT’s Adam McCaughan and Karl Berggren, superconducting circuits that use so-called Josephson junctions “have been clocked at 770 gigahertz, or 500 times the speed of the chip in the iPhone 6.”

“Computers based on superconducting logic integrated with new kinds of cryogenic memory will allow expansion of current computing facilities while staying within space and energy budgets, and may enable supercomputer development beyond the exascale,” said Manheimer.

Computer chip image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic